In 2002, Scott Ritter, the former Chief United Nations Weapons Inspector In Iraq, publicly accused the Bush administration of lying to Congress and the public about assertions that Iraq was hiding a chemical and biological weapons arsenal.
By speaking out publicly, Ritter emerged as one of the most prominent whistleblowers since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in the early 1970s.
Ritter’s criticisms about the Bush administration’s flawed prewar Iraq intelligence have been borne out by numerous investigations and reports, including one recently published by the Senate Armed Services Committee that found President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other senior administration officials knowingly lied about the threat Iraq posed to the United States.
Now Ritter, who was a Marine Corps intelligence officer for 12 years, is speaking out about what he sees as history repeating itself regarding U.S. policy toward Iran and the inevitability of a U.S.-led attack on the country, which he believes will happen prior to a new president being sworn into office in January 2009.
“We’re going to see some military activity before the new administration is sworn in.” Ritter said. But he added that “Iran is not a threat to the United States and Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. That’s documented.” Ritter teamed up with the Los Angeles-based U.S. Tour of Duty’s Real Intelligence, a nonprofit organization that represents former intelligence officials who openly discuss domestic and foreign policy issues. Ritter went on the road nearly a year ago to promote his recently published book, Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement. But over the past several months, issues related to Iran have dominated his discussions.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Public Record, Ritter said he has been keeping close tabs on the issue for years and continues to approach the issue as if he were still employed as an intelligence officer. He explained why he believes the U.S. is gearing up toward launching a military strike in Iran and how the media has misrepresented a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) regarding Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium.
He said one of the reasons he believes Democratic lawmakers have been reluctant to address the issue is the powerful Israeli lobby, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC has been pressuring the Bush administration to be even tougher on Iran. The lobby is largely responsible for drafting a resolution calling for stricter inspections and harsher economic sanctions against the country, which is expected to be voted on by the House next week.
Resolution 362 introduced by Congressman Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, has 170 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors.
The bill “demands that the president initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program.”
The resolution calls on President Bush to impose “stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran”
Ritter says AIPAC’s involvement in Iran policy is partially the reason Democrats have not been been willing to take a stand against the Bush administration’s hard-line tactics toward Iran.
“Congress has linked Iran policy to Israel. In this day and age of presidential politics no one wants to take on the Israeli lobby. That’s just the facts,” Ritter said. “You have to find a way to address this issue that sidesteps Israel. Some people may object to that. On the other hand, if you couch this thing in economic terms I think you now empower Congress to address this issue in a manner that sidesteps Israel.”
Last week, a Senate committee approved legislation to strengthen sanctions against Iran by restricting the import of Iranian carpets, caviar, and nuts to the United States.
“The strong sanctions we’ve approved today will work to deter the Iranian government from producing a nuclear weapon,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Ritter said the public would likely become more outspoken on the Bush administration’s policies toward Iran if they understood how an attack on Iran could lead to an economic collapse here at home.
“You have to talk about what’s going to happen to the price of oil, the price of food. People have to focus on that. Iran does not pose a threat whatsoever to the average American. We’ve got this hyped up threat. We need people to understand that they are being sold a bill of goods. There is no threat. Our welfare is going out the door right now because of this policy. We have to find a way to get this to resonate.”
Intelligence vs. Smoking Guns
One of the first questions Ritter says he is asked when he explains why the administration is planning an air assault against Iran is “where’s the smoking gun.”
“People will say ‘how do you know for certain,’” Ritter said. “You know I was in the in the intelligence business for a long time and we don’t make a living off of smoking guns. That’s what politicians do. We evaluate the totality of the available information and we make informed assessments and we do it in a systematic fashion. And that’s what I’ve been doing on the issue of Iran.”
Ritter said the increased rhetoric toward Tehran by various White House officials is a key indicator in understanding the Bush administration’s intent.
“I don’t like the word intent usually because the Bush administration used that with Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “Intent void of a factual basis is speculation. But here we do have documentation. We have a national security strategy. We have repeated statements by the current players themselves that they seek regional transformation in the Middle East inclusive of regime change in Iran. This is the policy objective of the Bush administration.
“So we have the intent. Now with the intent we have the escalation of rhetoric. So we not only have stated intent we now have statements that reinforce those intents and seek to activate this intent,” Ritter added. “And then you have the rhetoric that’s matched with the capabilities. Clearly you have the capabilities deployed in the region to act on this We’ve seen the nature of the strike be defined down to a limited strike to one or two strikes inside Iran affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard command. So you have all of these facilitators taking place.”
In May, the media characterized a report by the IAEA into Iran’s uranium enrichment program as evidence that Tehran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration held up that report as evidence that Iran is a grave threat to the United States and Israel.
But Ritter said the media misrepresented the report and likely did not thoroughly review its findings.
“We have a situation where the IAEA has published several technical reports all of which state there is no evidence Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. None. Zero,” Ritter said.
Ritter explained how the IAEA report was drafted.
“Information has been provided to the IAEA by member nations, intelligence information. Now the IAEA has to be very circumspect when it says this but we all know that it’s basically intelligence provided to the agency by the United States of America, a nation openly hostile to Iran, a nation that has a track record of fabricating, exaggerating, and misrepresenting intelligence data. The data that’s been provided to the IAEA has derived from a laptop computer which even the IAEA claims is of questionable providence,” he said.
Ritter said that because the United States has such a dominating role in the United Nations Security Council and in the Board of Governors the IAEA couldn’t ignore the information it receives from the United States about Iran.
“The IAEA can’t go to Iran with information that isn’t serious. So they say it’s serious and it needs to be investigated. So they go to Iran and the Iranians say, correctly so, ‘this is bullshit.’ You’re basically serving as a front to the CIA. The CIA is asking intelligence based questions about issues that are not relevant to the safeguards agreement, which, by the way, is the legally binding mandate that gives the IAEA the authority to do its work in Iran. You have to read the small print.
“The IAEA acknowledges that what it’s asking Iran to answer has nothing to do with its mandate of the nuclear non proliferation treaty. It is related to Security Council resolutions calling for the suspension of uranium and an investigation into a nuclear weapons program but the bottom line is what the IAEA has said is that Iran has not been forthcoming and Iran is saying it’s not their job to answer the CIA’s questions. So the IAEA reports that Iran is not being forthcoming on these issues and now it’s unnamed diplomats, i.e. American and British diplomats, who say they are very concerned because Iran’s refusal to cooperate only reinforces their concern that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
“This is purely CIA instigated tripe. When we get down to the nuts and bolts of the technical question of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and whether or not there’s any infrastructure in Iran that supports a nuclear weapons program and the IAEA technical find says there is none,” Ritter said.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, said in an interview last week with Al Arabiya Television that he would resign from the agency if Iran is attacked and warned that a military strike against the country would be catastrophic.
“I don’t believe that what I see in Iran today is a current, grave and urgent danger. If a military strike is carried out against Iran at this time … it would make me unable to continue my work,” ElBaradei said. “A military strike, in my opinion, would be worse than anything possible. It would turn the region into a fireball,” he said, emphasizing that any attack would only make the Islamic Republic more determined to obtain nuclear power.”
Israel Not Involved
Ritter said an attack on Iran would come in the form of a “sustained aerial bombardment.” He added that a military strike would not involve Israel as asserted last weekend by John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who told Fox News that Israel would attack Iran after the presidential election in the fall. Moreover, Ritter said a report in the New York Times last week that alleged Israel conducted a major aerial exercise over the eastern Mediterranean as a warning to Iran is simply untrue.
“Only a few analysts have reflected on what I’ve said all along: Israel cannot initiate and sustain an air strike against Iran,” Ritter explained. “They’re incapable of it because they don’t have the military force. They don’t share a common border [with Iran]. They have to fly over sovereign states. The immediate international outcry would be tremendous. When we sought to fly U2 aircraft into Iraq, when I was a weapons inspector, if we felt that the Iraqis delayed in their acknowledgement, the United States Air Force would SORTE a support package to go in. That included electronic warfare aircraft, refueling aircraft, etc. Just to get one U2 to fly a mission over Iraq with a support package involved 80 aircraft.
“For Israel to strike Iran, and remember Iran isn’t Iraq, Iran has a viable air-defense system, an Air Force, radar, and Israel would have to suppress it all and it can’t do it,” Ritter added. “Israel just doesn’t have the capability. Israel does not have the ability to initiate and sustain major combat operations against Iran. Israel is not going to start this fight. It will be the United States. All this talk about Israel getting involved I minimize that. Israel’s not going into Iran.”
Ritter said Bolton’s comments is an indicator that the “clock is running out” for ideologues in the Bush administration.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that John McCain is not going to become the next president of the United States of America, which means the next administration has the potential of deviating in a meaningful fashion away from the policies of the current administration,” Ritter said. “Clearly, the Bush administration is populated by ideologues that are very serious about what they want to accomplish. They aren’t playing games here. They aren’t children. They are serious. They believe there is a threat to the United States and that the United States has to take action. Why I bring this up is that the clock is running out for them.”
Congress Refuses to Act
Ritter had some tough words for Washington lawmakers for continuously failing to put any obstacles into place to block the Bush administration from even attempting to attack Iran without first consulting Congress.
“We see not only has Congress not seeking to put any obstacles in the way of this policy but in fact Congress is actively facilitating this policy by refusing to enact legislation that would require the president to get the consent of Congress before going into Iran,” Ritter said. “The fact that Congress has opted out from tying the president’s hands reinforces, at least in the Bush administration’s mind, that Congress is legitimizing the potential of action.
“So when you put all of this together you start to see that there is not only a real risk of war but that those who would like to do it see that there aren’t any obstacles being put in the way of their accomplishing this, which makes the likelihood of military action even greater. Everyday that goes by without Congressional action is another day that reinforces that there will be a military strike against Iran.”
Ritter has been trying to pass along his intelligence analysis on Iran to Congress for some time. He said “given the political situation that exists I don’t think you’re going to find any politician on either side of the political spectrum reaching out to me or talking with me directly.”
But he has been able, at the very least; distribute his intelligence to middlemen who can get the information to Congress.
“What I am saying to you is being said to the powers that be in Washington so there is no way [Democrats and Republicans] can say that they haven’t been made aware of this analysis,” Ritter said. “Ideally, there would be hearings and I would be invited to testify. So that not only these words would be given to the policymakers but it would be done in a way that the constituents would be cognizant of the fact that this is an analysis that was made available to policymakers who chose to act upon it or ignore it at their own risk.”
I contacted aides in the Democratic leadership offices of both Houses over the past week and also spoke to aides in minority offices. No one would comment on the record about the Bush administration’s policies toward Iran or discuss whether they have been made aware of Ritter’s intelligence analysis on the issue.
An aide to John Conyers, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, pointed to the congressman’s May 8 letter sent to President Bush stating that Conyers would initiate impeachment proceedings if an attack on Iran was launched without first receiving approval from Congress.
“Late last year, Senator Joseph Biden stated unequivocally that ‘the president has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran, and if he does, as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, I will move to impeach’ the president,” Conyers’ letter says. “We agree with Senator Biden, and it is our view that if you do not obtain the constitutionally required congressional authorization before launching preemptive military strikes against Iran or any other nation, impeachment proceedings should be pursued.”
Ritter was critical of the letter Conyers sent to Bush, saying the congressman is still avoiding the issue.
“John Conyers is so off base on this one,” Ritter said. “I appreciate his passion, but the fact is rather than Conyers say [to President Bush] if you attack Iran I am going to impeach you why doesn’t Conyers reflect on the fact that there is no basis for impeachment because he’s been constitutionally empowered by Congress. If Conyers is so worried about this what Conyers needs to do is work with Congress to revoke the two existing war powers resolutions concerning Afghanistan and Iraq and then reconfigure the president’s war powers authority in a manner which constitutionally permits ongoing combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but tells the president that if you seek any expansion of your authority you have to get the consent of Congress. Now if the president attacks Iran you can impeach him.”
Conyers office declined to comment.
Ritter said he understood that the hotly contested presidential election makes it difficult for Democratic lawmakers to address the issue of Iran.
“Let’s talk about political reality here. You cannot expect a politician, especially Democrats who want to retain control of Congress and want a Democrat to be president of the United States, to commit political suicide,” Ritter said.